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Schultz: Covering sports was a lot more fun than insurance or astrophysics

ATLANTA — One fall day in the post-Watergate era of the 1970s, when thousands of teenagers suddenly were inspired to crush their parents’ dreams and pursue low-paying careers in journalism, I walked to the end of a hallway at University High in West Los Angeles and sat on the floor outside of a locked door to the high school newspaper.
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A few minutes later, Montserrat Fontes, teacher and later novelist, walked up, looked at me and without even introducing herself said, “You look like a sportswriter.”
To this day I’m not sure if she meant that as a compliment.
I can’t explain why I wanted to be a sportswriter. It probably had something to do with a love for sports, devouring Jim Murray columns every morning and watching Oscar Madison on “The Odd Couple” that time when he woke up, put on his bathrobe, reached in the pocket, found half of a sandwich and of course took a bite out of it. The lifestyle just seemed far more appealing to me than selling life and auto policies for my father’s insurance agency, or any career that might actually require me to study.
I mean, if Montse, as everyone who worked for the student paper called her, had walked up to me and said, “You look like an astrophysicist,” this journey wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
This will be my final column for The Athletic. This will be my final column, anywhere. Probably. I’ve learned never to say never in sports, or in life. But after 42 years in this business, I’m retiring.
Columnist Jeff Schultz watched game film with Matt Ryan in 2016. (Courtesy of Jeff Schultz)
This isn’t a sudden decision. I considered it near the end of 2021 when my contract was expiring — that whole post-Covid, life-reflection thing. I re-signed for another two years, but at the start of 2023, I felt certain this would be it. Bill Parcells: “If you’re thinking about retirement, you’ve already retired.”
The Athletic has been great. The job has been great. And to you, the readers, from those who followed me from a newspaper to a website, to even those who think I was always out to get your favorite team or athlete, thank you. I learned a long time ago that the passion of sports fans cuts both ways and that should never be squashed. I can’t imagine sports without debate.
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So why stop? That’s easy. It has been 46 years since I made $5 covering a high school football game for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook and the first thing the coach said to me after the game was, “Either we’re the worst team in the league or I’m the worst coach.” I quoted him. He called the paper the next day and denied saying that. Eventually, when pressed, he acknowledged saying it but thought it was off the record. It wasn’t. I’ve had trust issues ever since.
The interviews, the reporting, the writing, cultivating relationships, building sources, earning trust — I could do that stuff forever. I learned a long time ago I could write a critical column and still have a working relationship with people if they believed you were being fair.
“Thanks for showing up. A lot of writers wouldn’t have done that after what you wrote the other day,” a Braves player said to me one night near the batting cage. “That counts for a lot.”
Schultz got to know Hank Aaron pretty well during his time in Atlanta, which included this interview in 2017. (Courtesy of Jeff Schultz)
There are so many gratifying days. But the time between the columns can wear on you. Going to sleep at night and waking up the next morning with the same questions — “What do I write about next? How do I serve my readers?” — is draining.
I’ve missed too many holidays and too much time with family and friends. My wife has tried to have too many conversations with me when I was on the phone or looking at my laptop. One year, I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. She should’ve left me. Even the dog should’ve left me. I would’ve left me.
“What are you going to do? You need to do something,” Arthur Blank said to me the other day.
“Arthur, I can’t work at the age of 81 like you,” I said.
“OK,” he replied, “but when you wake up, you need to have something to do. You can’t let yourself get bored.”
Which is funny because the one thing I keep telling my wife is, “Let me get bored. I want to know what that feels like.”
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I’ll figure it out. Truth is, my life is full. I have two kids, a granddaughter and another grandchild on the way. I have two family weddings coming up. I sit on the boards of two non-profits — if you can imagine that, a sportswriter being on two boards — related to individuals and family members in long-term recovery. Recovery and mental health initiatives have been a passion of mine for the past 12 years, and they will be forever.
I worked for newspapers for 37 years in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta. I thought I would have ink on my hands forever. I thought I would live in California forever. Old saying: “People plan, God laughs.”
I was living in the Bay Area when I got a phone call one day from a friend in Atlanta in 1989. He wanted me to recommend some NFL writers to him for a job opening. Then he asked if I was interested in the job. I said no. I was covering the 49ers, the biggest beat at my newspaper, and we loved living in San Francisco. Fast forward: The offer was too good. I took the job. Moved to the South. Shocked family members and friends. Figured it would stay five years at the most. Still here.
Schultz led the conversation during this media session with Jake Fromm in 2017. (Courtesy of Jeff Schultz)
In 2018, I got a phone call from somebody at something called, “The Athletic.” A venture-capitalist, no-ad, subscription-only start-up … in journalism. Sure, what could possibly go wrong?
“We’re coming to Atlanta and everybody tells me we need to hire you, so you’re my first phone call,” the person said.
My favorite opening ever.
We talked for more than an hour. We talked for several weeks. We talked about the changing business of journalism, telling good stories and philosophies of how to build a staff. I admired the vision and the guts of founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann. I was excited about the thought of something new. Like so many others at the new company, I decided to bet on myself and took the job. I helped them build the Atlanta staff. We launched that summer in Atlanta after baseball’s All-Star break. The company set a single-day sales record.
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I hoped The Athletic would last at least two more years. I’m leaving after 5 1/2. The company is now owned by The New York Times. There have been some changes and there will be more, but the doomsayers seem to have slinked away. I feel blessed that I could be a part of that growth.
“I can’t imagine you’re just going to go away,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “You’re still going to be dialed in to everything, right? I can’t see you going cold turkey.”
Admittedly, that’s difficult to imagine. When news breaks, I’m probably going to reach for my phone. I’ll miss trying to find a nugget of information or getting a comment nobody else has. I’ll miss the off-the-record conversations with representatives from both sides of stories that help form positions in columns. I’ll miss the adrenaline rush of that moment. I’ll miss leaning on relationships I’ve built over the years. I’ll miss some friends, even if they’ll still be friends.
I won’t miss getting to games three or four hours early and leaving three or four hours after they’re over. I won’t even miss the game credential that much. But I will miss the parking pass.
He might not miss the rain, but he’ll miss the parking passes. (Courtesy of Jeff Schultz)
I can’t tell you that I’m leaving sports or writing forever. But this chapter is closed.
“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else,” Fred Rogers said.
One day, Fred. I have no doubt doors are going to open. But I might just choose to sit on the floor at the end of the hallway for a while. Today seems like a good day in the neighborhood to do nothing. Until then, thank you.
(Photo of Jeff Schultz and Freddie Freeman in 2020: Courtesy of Jeff Schultz)

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